Saturday Features

The masque of anarchy

  • When the government takes a tough stance, as the recent Malaysian case has shown, foreign regimes are forced to concede to the fair treatment of Nepalis working abroad
- Mohan Guragain

Aug 11, 2018-

Qatar and Malaysia are the two foremost destinations for migrant workers from my village, Myanglung in Tehrathum. The tropical, peninsular country of Malaysia and the desert nation of Qatar have starkly different environments and are not of commensurable sizes.

Malaysia is a vast region made up of a considerable part of the Malay Peninsula and numerous surrounding islands. It is a popular destination for migrating workers from the Nepali hills in part because of the terrain and weather which are akin to home. Qatar, however, comprises a very different environment from the Nepali foothills. Adapting to the dry, desert atmosphere itself is a challenge for erstwhile farmers, who are used to a temperate climate, but their exploitation at the hands of employers, only furthered and facilitated by lax regulations and governmental oversight, is what besets labourers the most.

By way of duplicitous manpower agencies funneling workers into exploitative projects scattered throughout East Asia and the Middle East, migrant workers are often forced to live and work under wretched conditions for scant wages. There have been veritable instances where workers’ passports were withheld from them to preclude the chance of return. As it stands, such workers are trapped in a foreign land without political recourse, a situation only worsened by a home government that seems unable to deliver any real assurances regarding their treatment and rights. Unsurprisingly, many migrant workers have turned to alcohol. Unable to afford standard commercial liquor, they tend to use a concoction made sometimes from cleaning-grade spirits. Needless to say, the practice is highly dangerous. After a day’s work in the scorching heat, workers arrive at their cramped apartments at dusk where they set right to drinking. Many deaths of young Nepali men working abroad have been attributed to contaminated bootleg liquor.

In Malaysia, conditions for migrant workers seem relatively better in general. Returnees say that the chicken there is cheaper to purchase than vegetables while their lifestyles are often supplemented by the cheap cigarettes and alcohol they bring from home en masse. Many workers choose to work illegally beyond their agreed term often out of desperation. Even in Malaysia, pay can be meager and the dim prospects of restarting a life back home easily sways workers into using illegal means in a desperate bid for wealth and success. A relative of mine has been living in Malaysia illegally for eight years. In that time he has not seen his wife or child once. He had left them soon after she had given birth. The boy is oblivious of his father, while the wife struggles alone and probably cannot help but be bitter.

The social costs of migration are considerable. In the case of the said family, the boy is eight years old now and longs for a male role model and a fatherly presence in his life—it is only natural. The mass exodus of migrant Nepali workers has left towns and villages across the country abandoned and in disrepair. The sheer number of migrating men and women has caused a collapse of the erstwhile family structures and its consequences are already being felt. The dearth of working-age youth has led to a general neglect of the children and the elderly who are most vulnerable to such, social changes. The pain and guilt of separating from loved ones—the regret over it—stays with you for life. Great personal sacrifices are borne by the migrants who leave home for years and years and continue to struggle against the greatest tribulations and the deepest uncertainties purely out of the hope that they may gather enough pay that is so very crucial for the upliftment of their families back home.

It is well beyond time our government does its utmost to ensure the safety and rights of its citizens working abroad and to be fair, measures are currently being undertaken. Recently, Labour Minister Gokarna Bista announced that Nepal would no longer provide workers to Malaysia without the latter rescinding the current unilateral arrangement which forces workers to pay undue fees for every step of the visa process. So far, his fight to alleviate at least some of the workers’ plight seems to be bearing fruit as the Malaysian human resource minister has since changed his stance and has opted to re-commence communications with Nepali officials regarding this issue. Nepal halting the supply of (what is for that country) cheap migrant workers has come at a cost for Malaysian industries that rely heavily on foreign labour. The Malaysian minister is due to visit Kathmandu to seek a way out of the current labour crisis created by the recent crackdowns on illegal networks of manpower agencies that had a history of fleecing workers. The Malaysian government is reportedly ready to reform its policies regarding migrant employees and has also proposed the creation of a government-to-government model of hiring Nepalis for Malaysian companies that bypasses the exploitative middlemen entirely.

From the time of the installment of the Gurkha mercenary regiments, migrating Nepalis have always been subject to the harshest conditions and have more or less been left at their host’s mercy. Things are alright if the employers are humane and kind yet they are under no real obligation to be so and are not accountable to appropriate regulations regarding the fair treatment of workers. In fact with very little political leverage, there seems almost nothing at the moment that migrant labourers or their governments can do, should individual workers be treated unjustly. Consequently, so many instances of cruelty and injustice are suppressed, disregarded and so often, unspoken.

Impelled my unemployment and poverty, an increasing number of Nepalis have come to fill the ranks of a desperate and docile labour force rife for exploitation by capitalists from across the world, thanks to unequal treaties, slipshod regulations and the existence of a neo-liberal globalised economy that facilitates all of this. Over the years, so many Nepalis have been willing to pay traffickers and bribe officials inordinate sums of money just for a chance to illegally enter and work abroad. Today’s youth are forced to take upon themselves untold suffering while trying to establish a new life in a foreign land, integrating into which is an immense struggle for anyone. Most have to start from scratch and at first will have to tolerate unjust hardships and pain because of their often precarious legal status. They embark on this road of great travail and uncertainty out of the hope that someday they might be able to secure a decent livelihood abroad, one prosperous enough to also support the rest of the family back home.

Though typically insufficient while making such efforts in the past, the Nepali government was able to conclude a mutually agreeable and beneficial deal with South Korea, which properly stipulates Nepali worker rights including insurance of proper working conditions and equitable pay. Unlike most other countries where Nepalis go to work, agents no longer play a role in sending workers to South Korea. An aspiring migrants’ first job is to prepare for the Korean language test, passing which will almost always ensure a visa from an employer in the East Asian industrial hub.

For Nepali youths, Korea seems set to supplant the proverbial Laahur. Today young Nepalis aspire to go to Korea especially since the selection process is relatively fair. Even youths from families that have a long history of serving in foreign forces seem to now prefer taking the Korean route instead.

Minister Bista’s resolve to send Nepalis to work at foreign factories only upon the guarantee of their safety and security, as well as his campaign to reduce the sheer costs of the visa process, is truly praiseworthy. Such measures will help curtail the rate of human trafficking and exploitation. When the government takes a tough stance, as the Malaysian case has shown, foreign regimes are forced to concede when insisted on the fair treatment of people working abroad. In spite of a fractious and apathetic government, small success in this arena has been won through the efforts of dedicated individuals such as Bista. However, as far as securing equitable and lasting labour rights for Nepalis is concerned, there is a very long way to go. Labour rights, at home and abroad ought to be revised and effectively enforced.

The writer tweets @GuragainMohan

Published: 11-08-2018 08:09

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